Using peer-to-peer technology to crowdsource a way around online censorship


A visual example of how Lantern can help share online access around the world. (Lantern)

Adam Fisk knows a thing or two about peer-to-peer networks. You may have even used his handiwork to illicitly obtain some of your favorite tunes: Fisk was once the lead developer for the file sharing service LimeWire. These days, Fisk is trying to use similar technology to help people living under repressive regimes evade online censorship.

"At LimeWire in the really early days, censorship was starting to become an issue in places like China," he says, "and it became clear to me even back then that this peer-to-peer approach could be an effective way to tackle that."

That realization led to the creation of Lantern, Fisk says. The open source program essentially allows people in uncensored areas of the world to share their Internet connection with those without the same unfiltered level of access.

Lantern has already been used by thousands around the world -- in fact, last winter it was partially blocked by Chinese censors after the number of users skyrocketed to more than 10,000 -- but was initially invite-only. Now, Fisk and the rest of the team are trying to get the word out and recruit more people to help share their bandwidth.

"Basically, Lantern takes a peer-to-peer approach to censorship," Fisk explains. "One of the main ways that Lantern stays unblocked is that it allows users in uncensored regions to download and install it, becoming new access points or gateways to the open Internet."

Fisk says the program does a bunch of other "sneaky things" to bypass blocking measures in countries like China and Iran, but that the peer-to-peer technology is the key underpinning of how the system works.  Users in censored regions can choose friends to add and shift their traffic through -- and the Lantern GitHub page warns them to choose wisely: "If you add people who you donʼt trust, you run the risk of adding a user who could be monitoring you." But the system will also send users traffic through peers up to four degrees away from a user, so the network can scale to meet user demand.

This set-up does come with some trade-offs: Fisk warns that Lantern is about evading blocks and ensuring access to various sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter, not being anonymous. Although they have security measures in place and try to mask users, Fisk suggests those seeking anonymity use Tor instead. Tor is s tool that makes users much harder to track by encrypting traffic and sending it through a series of relays around the world, masking their real world location.

Lantern and Tor also share a funding source: the U.S. government. While the protocol behind Tor was initially developed with help from the Department of Defense, Lantern has received a series of grants from the State Department. The first few, Fisk says, were small awards made to him through Internews, a nonprofit group, to support development of the technology. But once he had developed a beta version of the program, the project received a $2.2 million windfall in the form of a direct State Department grant.

The grant, issued in 2011, was part of a program that takes a venture capital approach to funding projects that could help promote "Internet Freedom" abroad. “The State Department and its Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor supports Internet Freedom as part and parcel of our support for human rights, the fundamental freedoms the United States has always supported (including the freedom of expression, freedom of association and assembly, and freedom of the press), and the free flow of information," Stephen Schultze, a program officer working on Internet Freedom at the State Department, said in a statement.

Lantern's ability to allow anyone’s computer to become a server for anyone else fits into that framework by "helping mitigate repressive governments’ attempts to censor the Internet,” Schultze said, noting that the agency is on the lookout for other proposals and the next submission deadline is in December.

But now that Lantern has matured, it's seeking alternative funding source and a larger user base. The project is running an IndieGoGo campaign hoping to offset server, development and outreach costs. And it has partnered with Fight for the Future -- one of the most prominent groups from the fight against SOPA and PIPA copyright enforcement proposals in 2012 -- for an e-mail campaign to raise awareness about the project and ask their members to share their Internet access.

"Sometimes the Internet wins by banding together as a community. Sometimes we win through clever technical tricks," the Fight for the Future e-mail reads. "This time, the problem requires both: we need to come together around tools like this to get a victory."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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